ORDEAL IN THE
In regards to monuments, Will Rogers wrote: “You don’t
need a large monument if the cause is good. It’s only the
monument that’s for no reason at all that has to be big.
On the outskirts of Casa Grande, along what used to be
the main highway between Tucson and Phoenix stands a simple,
concrete monument surrounded by weeds and objects thrown from
passing cars. It shows the ravages resulting from the passage of
The monument was erected to honor a campsite of the
Mormon Battalion on December 20, 1846. Similar monuments are
found along the old Gila Trail commemorating the historic trek
of some citizen-soldiers during the Mexican War.
Some were erected by the Boy Scouts, others by
interested civic groups or descendants of the Mormon Battalion.
Some members of this famed group of road-building trailblazers
returned to Arizona by way of Utah more than 30 years after the
war to take root in the land and build a new life.
The battalion numbering 397 men and five women left
Santa Fe on October 19, 1846 embarking on the second half of a
2,000-mile journey to mark an overland road to California. It
remains to this the longest infantry march in American history.
Captain Philip St. George Cooke and his guides,
Antoine Leroux, Pauline Weaver and Baptiste Charbonneau were
trail-toughened veterans used to the forbidding mountains,
waterless deserts laced by impenetrable boulder-choked canyons
but the Mormons, recruited by church leaders, were unprepared
for the trials and tribulations that lay ahead. They joined the
Army as volunteers to show patriotism and receive
government-paid transportation to California where they hoped to
locate a new home for their displaced church.
Their rugged determination and work ethic eventually
won the respect of the no-nonsense professional soldier assigned
the inglorious task of building a wagon road along what would
become known as the Gila Trail.
Captain Cooke had been disappointed at not receiving a
combat command would never know that their efforts would have
far greater significance than any glorious cavalry charge he
might have led on the battlefield.
The hardships endured were recorded in the journals of
Captain Cooke and Sergeant Daniel Tyler of Company C paint a
vivid picture of their desert ordeal
The Mormon Battalion left Tucson on the morning of
December 18th following the Santa Cruz River
northwest towards the Gila River. Seven miles north of the Old
Pueblo, the river disappeared into the desert sand. The
expedition set out, cutting its way through 24 miles of dense
mesquite thickets towards the towering spires at Picacho.
At about 9 o’clock that evening they made dry camp.
Sergeant Tyler, a stake patriarch in the Church, recorded the
ordeal of that first night after leaving Tucson:
“Struggling, worn out, famishing men
came into camp at all hours of the night, and the rear guard did
not reach camp until near daylight.”
Resuming the march the next morning at sunrise they
traveled to a place where there was supposed to be water but
when they arrived, the hole was dry.
Cooke wrote: “There was nothing to do,
but march on; there was the same baked-clay surface, with a
little sand. At sundown a very small pool was come to; to
shallow for dipping with a cup, but enough for most of the men
to get a drink by lying down.”
According to Tyler there was: “….water
enough to give the most of those present a drink y lying down to
it, which was the only method allowed. Dipping forbidden, in
order that as many as possible might have a chance to drink. The
main portion of the army, however, had no water during the
entire day, save a few drops which the men managed to suck from
the mud in small puddle holes found by the wayside.”
Later that evening the pack mules were turned loose.
Their keen instincts drove them to a small pool and they plunged
headlong into the water. By the time the thirsty soldiers
arrived it was either consumed or unfit to drink.
Knowing their only chance for survival was to press
on; Cooke urged them to move forward. By this time the battalion
was strung out across the desert for several miles.
Lieutenant George Rosecrans of C Company rode into the
hills nearby and located a small spring where a few were able to
fill their canteens.
The soldiers trudged on, crossing rocky arroyos and
mesquite thickets. Finally, Cooke called a halt to the march:
“The battalion had then marched 26 hours of the
last 36; they were almost barefooted, carried their muskets and
knapsacks; the mules had worked 47 miles without water. A little
wheat was now given to them.”
On the morning of the 20th, the scouts
left long before sun-up and were several miles down the trail by
the time the battalion resumed its march. Sometime around noon
the scouts found water. Canteens were filled, loaded on pack
mules and rushed back down the trail to assist the stragglers,
many of whom were now lying along the trail, unable to continue.
The little concrete monument standing beside the road
marks the spot where the Mormon Battalion camped on the evening
of December 20th, 1846.
Will Rogers was right; you don’t need much of a
monument if the cause is good. This almost-forgotten little
monument deserves to stand ten feet tall for it recognizes more
than just a campsite---it is a testament to the courage and
perseverance of those Americans who pushed ever westward in the
creation of this great nation.